HEARTS will field a strong team for tomorrow’s Youth Cup final with up to nine players carrying first-team experience. However, head coach Robbie Neilson will not allow centre-back John Souttar to face Motherwell at Hampden.
Under-20 coach Jon Daly asked Neilson to let Souttar play but was told he can’t be risked. Jordan McGhee, Liam Smith, Dario Zanatta, Robbie Buchanan, Angus Beith, Sean McKirdy, Liam Henderson, Callum Morrison and Alistair Roy have all featured at senior level. They will all be involved in the glamour climax to the youth campaign.
Souttar, who joined Hearts from Dundee United three months ago, is eligible but is wanted for first-team duty against Celtic on Saturday. Daly explained how he tried to persuade Neilson without success. “It’s something we’ve spoken to Robbie about. I’ve asked for John Souttar but he won’t give me him,” he smiled.
“We’ll have a fairly strong squad. Most of the young boys who are in and around the first team now have played for the under-20s for most of the season. Robbie has been in this role as well and understands that the players want to play. They’ve taken part in the competition and they want to try and help finish it off. That’s good for us because it means we’ll have a strong squad.”
Hearts’ success at first-team level in recent seasons – they won the Championship title in record time last year and have now qualified for Europe – stems from promoting players through the Riccarton youth academy. Neilson is determined to continue that policy.
“It’s great to have a manager like Robbie who isn’t scared to promote players who’ve done well,” said Daly. “Once players see the manager will promote boys, it makes your job that bit easier because the players are going to give you everything on a daily basis. They know the rewards are there to get in and around the first team.”
Neilson believes occasions like the Youth Cup final can play an important part in the progress of young players. Hearts reached the final two years ago but lost to Rangers on penalties. Tomorrow’s final is the first not involving Celtic or Rangers for 18 years.
“It’s important for the development of the players and for the club that we do well in these competitions,” said Neilson. “These players, if they’re available and aren’t being used in the first team, will be available to play in the final.
“A few of them are eligible so we’ll take a look at it with a view to Saturday as well. It’s important we have a strong squad for the youth cup final but the guys playing first-team football have a huge game at the weekend.”
Having only joined Hearts in early January from Raith Rovers, Daly is tantalisingly close to silverware less than four months into his first coaching job. “I haven’t actually thought about that but it would be nice,” he pondered. “I’m very lucky and I know I’m very lucky to be working with some talented players in my first coaching role.
“I work alongside Liam Fox. He’s under-17 coach and he coaches the under-20s with me. We work every day with the boys and we both know how lucky we are. There are some excellent young players and it’s great for us to be able to go out and learn. We’re developing as coaches and they’re developing as players.”
Tension is involved, although Daly hasn’t had time to feel it yet. “I haven’t had time to be nervous. There’s a lot more to do when you’re a coach in terms of preparation. As a player, you have more time to think. Myself and Liam have constantly been working on our gameplan and trying to feed that on to the players. I’m sure, once that whistle blows, I’ll probably think: ‘Off, here we go’. It’s a big occasion for us and the players. Hopefully we can get a positive result.”
Daly explained why his own Hampden memories are mixed. “I’ve got a few positive and a few not so positive. You put the ones that aren’t great to the back of your mind. Winning the 2010 Scottish Cup with Dundee United was the biggest one. The couple of goals I got against Celtic in a semi-final was good, although we lost 4-3. It’s the type of place you can get a chance to come and play at if you play long enough.
“I’ve been to a couple of cup finals and I’m lucky to have done that. There are players who are playing for me who might never get a chance to do this again. You need to try and enjoy the experience, take the most from it and let it all soak in. If they can make it a positive experience, it’s something they’ll remember for the rest of their careers.”